Category Archives: games

Gaming and subcultures in Little Brother

MMORPG 2In Little Brother, Cory Doctorow demonstrates that social gaming communities can give rise to independent subcultures.

At the start of the novel, Marcus Yallow and his friends take part in an alternate reality game (ARG), Harajuku Fun Madness. The game involves clues hidden around major cities, forming a overlaid network over ordinary society. The ARG foreshadows events later in the book, where Marcus’s resistance network must remain hidden whilst still interacting with society.

Similarly, Marcus has experience of live action role-playing games (LARPs). Again, his experience involved playing the games in public, therefore producing a gaming layer over everyday life. Importantly, these LARPs involved dressing as vampires, linked to goth subcultures at the fringes of society. Marcus uses his knowledge of ARGs and LARPs to stage the politically-motivated gathering at the end of the novel.

With the internet monitored by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Marcus uses a modified Xbox console to communicate with his peers. Significantly, the hardware is designed for gaming, now adapted for political use. Large corporations are symbolically aligned with the DHS, as the teenagers use Microsoft’s hardware for unauthorised purposes.

The Xnet itself is similar to chatrooms and forums that surround internet gaming culture. The massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), Clockwork Plunder, becomes less a game and more a legitimate social space for Xnetters to congregate, eventually becoming the home of the Xnet’s first press conference.

All of these examples are social activities that began as gaming experiences, adapted by Marcus and his friends for political means. Eventually, the situation is reversed: new game-like experiences arise from purely political activities. When Marcus meets the young teens Nate and Liam, he sees that they treat ‘jamming’ as an ARG, albeit one of which their victims are unaware.

In this way, Doctorow demonstrates that social subcultures and political movements can easily become merged, feeding into one another.

Submitted to Coursera as essay 10 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 2

Image from Invertika / Wikimedia Commons

Videogames I played in 2010 – retail games

2010 was a year in which I noticed a change in my attitude to videogames: I became more interested in the principles and mechanics behind videogames rather than particular titles themselves. Increasingly, I used games as time-fillers, distractions and OCD tasks rather than as prime-time entertainment. Also, I completely tired of game narratives.

Here are some unordered thoughts about some boxed games I played last year:

Fallout New Vegas (Obsidian Entertainment)
I love Fallout 3. I love it to bits. I’ve played through the mammoth story three times, to the concern of my girlfriend. Ropey textures: fine. Bugs and glitches: no problem. VATS targeting system: A-OK. So why does New Vegas, with an identical engine, feel so off?
The locations are part of the problem. Fallout 3 had some amazing central locations, including Megaton, the Jefferson Memorial and the Museum of Technology, each of which felt distinct and full of specific perils. New Vegas feels disconnected and even the Vegas Strip itself seemed bare. I’d expected each of the hotels to be rich with detail, but they felt like a slog. I also spent frustrating sessions trying in vain to climb mountains that were stubbornly inaccessible, ruining the open world vibe.
I think I’ll mainly have to chalk it up to fatigue, though. While I’d be happy to explore the familiar world of Fallout 3 again, New Vegas felt like an oddly vague callback.

Demon’s Souls (From Software)
As many reviewers have noted, this is a stubbornly cruel but wonderful game. However, after two months of irregular play, I finally hit the wall – I think I’d need to dedicate an unreasonable amount of time to progress much further. Despite (or perhaps as a result of) the difficulty, you’re never in doubt that the game is beatable, if only you STOP MAKING STUPID MOVES. The most fun I had were in the early levels, before the structure of the game is made apparent. I spent hours creeping around corners, shield raised, terrified of whatever might spring out from darkened corners. To learn all the nooks and crannies and later play those same levels with supreme confidence felt wonderful.
Also, Demon’s Souls contains a pleasing absence of story. I am fighting skeletons and demons because they are there. That is all.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (Ubisoft)
I’ve already reviewed this game in an earlier post. Amazingly, I rarely felt lethargic playing this title, and even the cutscenes and nonsense plot held my attention.

Batman: Arkham Asylum (Rocksteady Studios)
This game was understandably adored last year. It captures the mood of the comics well and the combat is satisfying. My attitude to the main story was so-so: it was what it was. But the game came alive for me during the optional hunt for secrets scattered about the open world. This, I think, says something about my gaming type. I’m aware that most of the games I become most engrossed in are those that fuel my collector / OCD impulses.

Heavy Rain (Quantic Dream)
I got to the party scene and my save game became corrupted, losing my progress. I’ll play this again, but I’m saving my reactions until I’ve finished a full playthrough. For the record: more like this, please.

Borderlands (Gearbox)
Seriously, stop it. Another lengthy, humdrum game enlivened by collector fixation. Mostly, I appreciated the absence of cutscenes or explanation, but the bulk of the game did rather boil down to collecting and upgrading weapons. But – Krom’s Canyon was probably the most enjoyable single bit of level design I played this year.

The rest of the boxed titles I played in 2010 (Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, Split Second, Modern Warfare 2, Lego Harry Potter Years 1-4, Sports Champions, New Super Mario Bros Wii) were just, you know, fine.

So, conclusions… well, reading this list makes me sigh. I feel I’ve misused videogames in 2010 and turned some top-grade entertainment into simple fetch quests. The notion of fun doesn’t really enter into my experiences of most of the above titles – rather, I played most of them as a furrowed-brow distraction technique in place of doing things I really ought to be getting along with. I’m unsure whether this is partly down to the collection of often generic titles – many of them feel like polished versions of older games – or whether I’m starting to lose the love.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (Ubisoft)

Far from the expansion pack that many expected, this is the definitive Assassin’s Creed game so far. It’s as beautiful as the series has always been, and the character animation is superb – but this time Ubisoft have layered dozens of game types on top of the basic quests. As many reviewers have noted, it’s easy to become happily waylaid in sidequests, en route to main story locations – in fact, this is the only game I can remember where I’ve begun to rinse the remaining sidequests immediately after completing the main story.

The city-building metagame, now presented as part of the open world rather than a discrete interface, appealed to my completionist tendencies and the effect on the game world was tangible. The brotherhood metagame, where you send fellow assassins on remote quests for loot rewards, was less successful. It’s all too easy to ignore the text descriptions of quests and to see assassins as resources to be apportioned out – I’d expect this element of the game to be improved in later sequels.

One of my biggest criticisms in the first AC game was that it encouraged lazy play rather than elaborately stealthy assassinations. Importantly, many of the key assassinations in this third title are framed in ways that invite imaginative approaches: by rooftop, from hidden positions within crowds, and using smoke bombs and poison to dispose of targets. Even though my occasional frustration led me to take the easy route at times, the introduction of a ‘100% sync’ bonus for completing a quest in a particular manner should ensure that I’ll be aiming to up my game later.

The story is, as always, tosh – at least, in terms of the nuts and bolts of dialogue, exposition and so on. But Brotherhood’s strongest narrative suit is the blending of the contemporary world (Desmond and his assassin-sympathising techies) and his ancestors’ memories. Leaping around Ezio’s mansion as modern-day Desmond was a strange thrill that’s far more affecting that anything contained in the script proper. Like many open world games, Brotherhood’s most enduring moments are non-scripted. My revelation was early in the game as I discovered the ruined Colosseum, clambered to the top of the one remaining full wall, and surveyed the glorious view.

Spoilers! Don’t read this paragraph if you’re planning to play the game.
There was, though, one story element that really surprised me. Ezio’s quest is to rescue Lucrezia Borge’s lover, Pietro Rossi: he’s taken the role of Jesus in a Passion play, but Cesare Borge has ordered Micheletto to stab and kill Rossi as an ‘accident’ during the rehearsal within the ruins of the Colosseum. As Ezio, the player steals and wears a Roman soldier costume and infiltrates the rehearsal, kills Micheletto and rescues Rossi, who has also been poisoned. Taking Rossi to a nearby doctor to be cured involves the player guiding this Roman soldier, as he carries a bloody and limp Jesus rescued from the cross, slowly out of the Colosseum. While, of course, both game characters are acting these parts, the image is striking. It’s one of those moments (like the Tibetan village scene in Uncharted 2) where the player is invited to dwell on the details with only a small amount of agency in the onscreen actions. It’s one of the most interesting scenes I’ve seen in a game all year and raises all sorts of questions about subject matter that could, one day, be addressed by videogames.

GetGlue is a foisting machine

In the last week or so I’ve been playing around with GetGlue, a new recommendation and social networking site that covers all media (i.e. film, TV, books, music, general topics). After my abortive research into film recommendation sites – and I really should update my earlier post, as I ended up leaving Jinni in favour of Criticker, which still has plenty of failings – this feels like it could become the site for me.

There are several main draws to GetGlue. The first seems trivial but is central – you gain virtual stickers for various activities – for example, rating 50 TV shows. These stickers show up on user profiles, working as boasts similar to Xbox achievements. There are also mentions of becoming applicable to receive ‘hard-copy’ stickers for free, but this doesn’t seem to be the big sell.

The other USP is that GetGlue distinguishes between recommendations and ‘checking in’ – i.e. letting users know what you’re currently watching, reading, listening to or thinking about. This feature’s obviously inspired heavily by Facebook updates, and indeed you can publish each comment directly on Facebook (or Twitter) – you could actually use GetGlue as a portal for social-media updates related to your likes or dislikes.

Finally, and the feature that’s got me hooked, is the ability for users to become ‘gurus’ of particular subjects, achieved through posting reviews and users voting. Guru status bestows the user with page-editing privileges and also the ability to hardwire particular recommendations to that page. The temptation to foist obscure but related books, films and music onto casual browsers is huge, I’m discovering. I’m disproportionately proud to be guru of 10 things, currently: The Last Man on Earth, The Drums’ Summertime!, Dungen, Viktor Vaughn’s Vaudeville Villain, Lonnie Donegan, The Research, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, Electrelane’s The Power Out, The Hired Sportsmen and 13 & God.

As with my earlier comparison post, here are my thoughts about GetGlue, distilled:

Pros:

  • Impressively wide catalogue due to links with specialist websites e.g. Last.fm and imdb
  • Ability to add to index from selected sites
  • Covers music, film, books, topics
  • Clean, clear interface
  • Guru status offers Wikipedia-like editing rights, plus ability to make recommendations
  • Stickers encourage exploration and are strangely compelling
  • Distinction between ‘checking in’ and liking things
  • There’s a linked iphone app
  • Links to Facebook and Twitter

Wishlist:

  • User profiles by default show a Facebook-like ‘stream’ rather than a definitive overview of that person (favourites are more enlightening but are buried away)
  • Favourites can’t be split into media type, so can become messy and unrepresentative
  • Can’t reorder favourites or lists
  • ‘Saved’ items could be made into more useful ‘to read’/’to watch’ lists, so could become a reminder tool
  • The iphone app only allows you to ‘check in’ rather than rate favourite items
  • Recommended items are literal-minded and uninspired (e.g. if you like an album by an artist, you’ll like other albums by the same artist), and only relate to a single item rather than a combination of items
  • Inability to add extra comments to a page once you’ve reviewed – even if you’re the guru
  • ‘Check in’ seems different to ‘currently reading’ etc – it’d be nice if user profiles could show media that the user is currently immersed in…
  • Only three tiers of rating: ‘favourite’, ‘like’ and ‘don’t like’ (perhaps, though, this is a ‘pro’, as it’s much lessy fussy than, say, Cricticker)
  • Can’t embed stream or favourites in non-Javascript blog (like this one)
  • Can’t easily browse recommendations – quite limited categories (e.g. 1970s)
  • This is entirely trivial, but I’d love to see the stickers feed into a meta-game or measureable tally of ‘progress’ – probably irrelevant for most people though!

You can see my GetGlue profile here.

Every Day the Same Dream (Paulo Pedercini, 2009)

I already posted about this game on my serious games blog, but it definitely bears repeating. Every Day the Same Dream is a beautiful independent game from Paolo Pedercini as an entry to the Experimental Gameplay Project. Illustrating the tedium of routine office work, the game allows few interactions – for example exchanging brief words with your indifferent wife, a homeless man, the elevator operator. You can only ‘win’ the game by searching out the few ways to break the routine of everyday working life. It’s bleak and often tedious – and it’s one of the most consistent and affecting games I’ve played in a long time.

See Paulo Pedercini’s website for links to his other works, including a machinima video about post-traumatic stress disorder filmed with the recruiting game America’s Army, and online games covering subjects such as the unethical practices of fast food corporations and child abuse by the Catholic clergy.